Not just a horse with a horn

26th December 1997 at 00:00
John Mole on the latent power that resides in the unicorn

UNICORNS! UNICORNS!. By Geraldine McCaughrean. Illustrated by Sophie Windham. Orchard Pounds 9.99. UNICORN CITY. By Dyan Sheldon. Illustrated by Neil Reed. Hutchinson Pounds 9.99.

The unicorn has pride of place in any bestiary. Its lethal, jousting horn is an emblem of dangerous beauty, though its legendary meekness when tamed by a virgin places it firmly, if ambiguously, in the realm of the spiritual. Untamed, the best way of catching it was to stand in front of a large tree until it charged at you and then step aside at the last moment. But such rough ingenuity is not the stuff of magic and unicorn stories are usually imbued with an attractive, dreamy gentleness: their protagonists are kind creatures full of sweetness and light but with a latent power which avoids sentimentality.

Illustrating a unicorn story is a real challenge and responsibility. Not only, I imagine, must the great French tapestries always be at the back of any artist's mind, but that horn really does have to grow out of the head and not appear attached like some sort of barley-sugar after-thought. In her beautiful illustrations to Geraldine McCaughrean's Unicorns! Unicorns! (there are two of them), Sophie Windham solves the problem by giving the creatures manes which are almost Pre-Raphaelite in their decorativeness. This serves, at the same time, to create a fine fluency of design and - more prosaically - to hide the join. She, in her turn, is well-served by an imaginative text which tells how the unicorns are delayed in reaching Noah's Ark (hence the pair instead of the usual unique beast) because they stop to encourage or help other animals. And those manes really fill the pages at the end, since, though they miss the Ark, the unicorns and "their countless children" live on as waves of the sea: "Though they race for dry land, they somehow never reach it. only their candy-twist horns and sugar-stranded tails melt on the wet sand amid the seaweed and shining shells." A gem of a book, and a perfect match of author and illustrator.

Dyan Sheldon and Neil Reed's Unicorn City suffers by comparison, although it is quite an attractive, conventional little tale about a boy, Dan, whose dull surroundings are brightened by a unicorn which at first only he sees but which by the end (and by means of his own story-telling) is leading his entire class into an imaginary world.

The trouble is that Neil Reed's illustrations lack magic. They are competent enough when depict-ing the classroom and its neigh-bourhood, but the enchanted forest into which the unicorn carries him and the landscape into which it finally leads the class are mere Disneyland.

The unicorn itself, though, is a dear old horse, affectionate and patient, whose horn comes in useful for juggling and spearing apples - a nice, domesticated detail which characterises this quiet, kindly little tale.

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